Wednesday, July 20, 2005

if not a prisoner of azkaban, then at least of this rather longer than anticipated post

After having some time to reflect, I think I've decided that the newest Harry Potter book is not necessarily the best one since the first, but it is definitely better than the last and a very worthy addition to the series.

Why is Harry Potter so popular among adults? So ask various adults in the blogosphere and elsewhere, some of whom have even tried reading one or two of the books but don't get what the fuss is about. I'm not sure how much genuine interest there is in understanding the matter, but, to take the question seriously, I think one has to break the matter into understanding (a) why the first books came to be popular and (b) why the latter books continue to be as (or even more) popular. The answer to the latter is simpler, I think, insofar as once you get to read people to read three books in a series for which there is an ongoing storyline, it's a lot easier to get them to read the rest, regardless of age. Even so, I think Rowling was very smart in making plain from the outset that this was going to be a seven-book series, so that people feel they really are following a genuine dramatic arc that will culminate, as opposed to some open-ended series where either it feels like there is no end or each book is written like it might, or might not, be the last.

As for why the first books are popular, I have to admit to some annoyance when people say that the Harry Potter books are just a swirling knocking of A, B, C, D, and E, where the cited sources vary but are usually a hodgepodge of boys adventure stories. If you want to understand why the first three Harry Potter books are popular among adults, I think you have to appreciate that, while they have adventure story elements, they are really more mystery stories. I mean, however much Rowling might lift from whoever, whoever, whoever, whoever, she also develops a interesting little whodunit and adapts various classic devices from the suspense-mystery format to the world of the books.

Wherever she draws her inspiration from, the first books also draw a world with all kinds of clever little touches and continually imbued with this sense of wonder and fun. Frankly, compared with certain other writers in the children's/young-adult fantasy genre, part of the appeal of the Potter books is that it's full of cleverness but doesn't start taking its world too seriously--you don't get the image of some creepy male author sitting in an attic typing out page after page of the fantasy world that he had first started conjuring as an adolescent as a way of coping with what a pimply loner freakazoid he was.

More precisely, I think, the appeal of the series to adults is really to be explained most importantly by the first book, which starts out with this cute and uplifting story about a downtrodden boy getting introduced to this fascinating new world but then, before you quite realize what has happened, turns also into this compelling little page-turner with an ending clever enough that you feel gratified by it even though you are an adult. The second and third books were good follow-ups in the sense of providing both creative enough elaborations on the world she had created and, again, a suspense/mystery plotline that was engaging enough to keep you reading and then which had an ending Clever Enough For Adults.

After that, I mean, this is why all careerist mystery novels try to start series: once you get readers hooked into a series, you've got it made.

As far as their character as mystery novels goes, I think Rowling is helped greatly in hoodwinking her adult readers by their knowing that they are reading a book whose primary audience is children. When I'm reading an adult mystery novel, I have a pretty good sense of calibration for clues and plot twists and whatever--along the lines of thinking that while it would not be entirely obvious that X is the culprit, it would still be a little bit too obvious, so instead it must be Y. With several of the Harry Potter books now, I have thought that I could see ahead to how the ending was going to turn out--that would be clever enough for an eleven-year-old reader--only to realize that I had been fooled, and in a way where, indeed, in retrospect the clues did stack up nicely toward her solution.*

* FOOTNOTED SPOILER! In the most recent book, notice how she sets up the question of "Who is the half-blood prince?" and then also has there be a long series of discussions of a primary character who is a half-blood--although that phrase is not explicitly used--and seemingly just the sort of person who would be scribbling down sinister turns on spells in a textbook. Too obvious, right? But, never anywhere do any of the characters ever suspect that this character might be the Half-Blood Prince. If not in a children's book, I think I still would have thought it too obvious. Instead, though, I took for granted that this is who the HBP would turn out to be, as a plot twist that was Good Enough For The Kids. And, lo, I was fooled. In this case, however, it was too bad that the revelation of the HBP doesn't really have much import for the rest of the story.


nina said...

Your points are well taken, but I would add more. So here goes a long comment:

I think HP fed off of its own popularity. I’m not as mesmerized by the books as others are but I certainly find them good enough to say some positive things about them. Some would overlap with what you mention, and I would add others – about the ease of reading (did you ever notice how undemanding reading HP is? The idea that you get “pulled in” means not only that the story is good, but that the textual material is presented so that it flows; it’s like eating the smoothest ice cream in the world – it just glides in), about the type of suspense she has created (again, very palatable, with universal appeal), etc.

And still this will not explain the fact that you and millions rushed to get the next and the next and the next. There, I think you have to step back and look beyond the book itself. It becomes more about the people reading it, don't you think? Maybe one could speculate about why people must taste something that so many are raving about. I read HP not because this type of story would be the one I’d look for in a bookstore, but I wanted to see for myself what all the fuss was (and then decided that though good, there were, for me personally, more interesting books out there).

I would bet that initially, most adults reading HP were with children and so there was a natural bridge there, but then the popularity spread slowly up the youth-to-adult age ladder, though not too high. I don’t think most of the enthralled non-parent adults are that old (at the same time that I do believe that non-parent older adults are a significant chunk of the mystery-reading population).

I think HP was such a phenomenon that it permitted you entry into that world, gave you a taste of children’s literature again. I remember reading to my daughters when they were sort of HP book type age. It was astonishing how mesmerizing that literature was to me personally, even as I hadn’t any reason to prowl around those shelves anymore.

Bottom line: Rowling developed a fairly easy, extremely readable, pretty clever texts. Kids went for it and adults wanted to know why. Popularity is a draw. And then you got sucked into a classic innocuous little adventure.

Anonymous said...

Imagine someone writing a book for kids using witty English and a slant that echoes school-life days, but with an escape hatch into a fantasy power mechanism that can be quite hilarious. Think it would sell? Think it's easy to do?
Kids recognized the real thing, and it took off — so, probably, confounding publishers who wouldn't have dared to take a chance on it.
It's a victory for creativity over commercial 'trade' thinking.

Anonymous said...

Imagine someone writing a book for kids using witty English and a slant that echoes school-life days, but with an escape hatch into a fantasy power mechanism that can be quite hilarious. Think it would sell? Think it's easy to do?
Kids recognized the real thing, and it took off — so, probably, confounding publishers who wouldn't have dared to take a chance on it.
It's a victory for creativity over commercial 'trade' thinking.

Anonymous said...


dorotha said...

i like pimply freakazoid loners and don't mind thinking about them writing alone in an attic somewhere. then again, i do aspire to live in an attic.

astrid jane said...

As an aside about Dorotha, she once took an online "which Harry Potter character are you?" test, and was thrilled when it matched her with Snape.

I was living in DC when the first book came out, and my social circle mostly consisted of the kind of smackable would-be intellectuals who spent hours dropping commentary on their great enjoyment of Don Delillo's most recent obtuse and plotless literary sensation into casual conversations. A DC friend of mine once described a blind date in which the big "deal breaker" was him mentioning that he'd recently read, and really liked, book one in the Harry Potter series.

I didn't plan to read any of the HP novels, until one day when I was killing time in Border's and picked up the first one to skim. I remember reading the sentence "Uncle Vernon picked out his most boring tie..." and buying it because it seemed so cheeky and clever. Of course, I snuck around with it like it was hardcore triple X Llama porn or something, because God forbid people should see me reading it and think I was even more low-brow than they already did.

I enjoyed the first book for the continuous sense of magical wonder it inspired (Harry walks through the whole thing goggle-eyed and delighted by things like post owls, earwax flavored jelly beans, and Hagrid's magical pink frilly umbrella) and for its unexpected humor. I think the sense of "Wow! Neat!" is what carries you through the first book, and subsequent books introduce character tensions, love interests, and a deepening mystery that keep you engaged.

What I really appreciate about the series is that it delivers two things both children and adults want (but children are often assumed to be unable to handle)-- sharp, sarcastic humor, and plot devices that are a bit twisted, dark and scary...dude, how many kids' books feature a (SPOILER COMING UP)lake full of murderous reanimated corpses?

Reading dark, sarcastic fairy tales turns kids into the kind of adults who have a flair for the dark and sarcastic....which, in my opinion, is the best possible kind of adult to be.

astrid jane said...


DON'T read this if you haven't read the book yet, but...

Can it possibly be true about Snape? I mean, yes, it certainly now looks as if he is an honest-to-God Death Eater, and as if he murdered one of the series' most lovable characters, but... will Rowling redeem him? I'm sort of crushed over this, actually.

Jennifer said...

Snape is TOTALLY good! I believe this wholeheartedly. It seems to me as if it could've been set up by Dumbledore and Snape earlier that this would have to happen. Dumbledore seems to know throughout the book that he's going to die soon.
--Dumbledore says "Severus..please.." If Albus Dumbledore realized he had been tricked, he'd've been like, "congratulations Severus." He wouldn't plead for his life like that.

--the argument that Hagrid overheard between Snape and Dumbledore was like, "I don't want to do it," "no it must be done."

--Dumbly started pleading from the minute Snape walked in. He had no reason to assume Snape wasn't on his side.
--When Harry starts going after Snape, Snape practically tells him that he needs to learn Occulmency and never really tries to hurt him until Harry calls him a coward. Which makes sense, if Snape had just done something he really didn't want to do: kill the only person protecting him on the good side.
--The whole scene has the same feel that the first part of the Shrieking Shack scene in Pris. of Azkaban had: that in light of new information we would read what's going on totally differently. It seems like Snape and DD have already talked this out and Snape is killing him in order to save Draco. DD doesn't want Draco to become a murderer.

Sorry for going on and on and on. I'm a total dork. But am determined to convince myself that Snape is not bad. Well, he's a bad person (and a horrible teacher! poor Neville!), but I do believe he is on the "right" side. How ever will he convince Harry and the rest of the Order, now, though? Maybe Dumbledore left something in his pensieve?

Anyway, sorry. I'll stop now.

Ema said...

(SPOILER) I agree with Jennifer that Snape is not bad. I just felt the need to add that at the end of the book (as well as throughout the enitre series), Snape protects Harry. The blonde Death Eater would have killed Harry if not for Snape's interference. Further, if Snape's goal was to kill Dumbledore, he could have simply been 'unable' to aid Dumbledore after he received damage from destroying the first horcrucx. Snape needs to grow up, but he is not evil.

john said...

Spoiler! Warning! Don't read, HP deprived masses!

I'm having trouble coping with the next book possibly not having Hogwarts as the mainstay. Hopefully the writing won't become solely about Voldemort, because one of the big attractions of the books is how the children's school life lends greatly to Rowling's 'clever little touches' that Jeremy describes.

astrid jane said...

Yeah, I'm leaning toward agreeing with Jennifer et al....Two things seem to foreshadow Dumbledore making Snape pledge to kill him should certain (as yet unexplained) events come to pass--the first is the introduction of the "Unbreakable Vow," the second is Dumbledore's forcing Harry to promise to do the same thing on multiple occaisons inside the cave (both by making Harry promise to leave him behind if need be, and by making Harry promise to force him to drink that green potion.) Given that, its easy enough to make the leap to Dumbledore's forcing Snape to make a similar pledge.

And, you're right, Dumbledore would never beg for his own life...although the "please Severus" might, on the other hand, have been a "please-don't-go-over to-the-dark side, Anakin" sort of thing.

dorotha said...

in response to jab about snape - part of his appeal, and here i mean my crush on him, is his tattoo! kidding. really, it is the good/bad thing. i love that he is good despite himself almost. he seems like he would so much rather be evil, but can't help but do the right thing. the other draw i have to snape is his black hair. he's so goth and grouchy and dreamy!

now for the SPOILER - i think there are a good number of ways that JKR can get out of snape being a double agent. there could have been an agreement between him and albus. he could also have seen just how far gone that albus was - his proximity to the dark lord and his knowledge of potions may have given him special knowledge about what that potion was doing to the headmaster. perhaps there was no cure, and he figured that he needed to save draco more than he needed to reassure harry. dumbledore's death may also serve to galvanize the wizarding world's fight against voldie.

more SPOILING - i was quite sad that the living corpses did not play a larger role in the story. hopefully they will in the next book.

final bit of SPOILAGE - at the end of the book, harry is thinking to himself about how he will fight voldemort even if it takes ten years. good lord. there is no way this will get drawn out further, is there?

Ann Althouse said...

Jeremy: I linked to this. You might want to stop by my comments and defend yourself.

Pat said...


The reason Snape as the HBP is so important is that it shows that Harry blindly trusted the Prince (and thusly Snape) just like Dumbledore blindly trusted him (or seemed to, I think we'll find more out later). Or at least that was my take, and I thought it was kind of brilliant (maybe because Snape was my guess for the identity of the Prince since well before the book came out).

Rhymes With Scrabble said...

I finally got to read it in Boston. If Snape turns out to be really evil, I will blame JKR, not him. I stand by my feeling that it is ridiculous to have four houses representing the four virtues of wizardry and have those four virtues be: loyalty, bravery, wisdom, and EEEEEEEEEE-vil. And what about those poor 10-year-olds getting sorted in Slytherin? Bad blood?

Also, hooray for my closest counterpart in the HP world hooking up with Remus Lupin. Sweet.